waiting for the next dilemma

Gosh, grounded again.

…Well, sort of.

It's complicated.

Mabel is finally past the last of her cold, but instead of celebrating with a good ol' fashioned anomaly hunt she's lying on the living room carpet, staring at the ceiling and making bored fart noises out of the corner of her mouth. Grenda is visiting relatives in Bend and Candy has piano practice all afternoon. Not even forty-eight hours ago, this would have made it an ideal day for Mabel, Dipper, and Pacifica to grab their gear and explore the woods, perhaps with Soos or Wendy in tow. Despite two summers spent roaming the forest, there are so many places in the valley they haven't seen yet. Like the east rim! What's even up there? Something amazing, that's what.

Why oh why did Grunkle Stan have to pull a Mom and Dad.

Okay, so Dipper and Grunkle Ford took things a bit too far and got stuck in a messed-up maze. But that was mostly Grunkle Ford's fault, so why should the kids get punished? Dipper's the one who defeated the maze. If Mabel had been there, they would have beat it twice as fast. With Pacifica, three times! If Wendy and Soos and Candy and Grenda and Grunkle Stan had been there too, that maze would've been no problem. They could've knocked it out in an hour and stopped for tacos on the way back—the perfect day.

Instead, they got… 'half-grounded?' She can still go places and hang out with her friends; she just can't do the really exciting stuff. It's better than killing time back home in the sense she gets to see her summer peeps and her grunkles and spend time in her favorite valley, but it's a distinctly lesser version of summer vacay. She should be out in the forest with Dipper, hunting dragon eggs or maybe finally figuring out what the deal is with that gosh darn Boss-Lobster. For serious, what is that Boss-Lobster's deal?

The door to the gift shop swings open and Grunkle Stan pokes his head in. "Hey, if you're gonna just lay around, you could at least stock some stickers."

This is the silver lining to being Shack-grounded: Grunkle Stan has lost what little leverage he has over the twins and they are now officially on strike. What's he going to do if they don't work—ground them?

"Sorry, can't hear you, I'm soooo busy doing super important floor things," Mabel loudly replies.

"Come on, Mabel, you love stickers!"

She refuses to yield. "I'm on strike until you stop being a big grumpy-grump, so deal with it!"

"I don't know what everybody's got against child labor. First the government, and now you!" Stan complains as he ducks back into the gift shop.

Mabel sighs at the ceiling. In truth, getting out of work isn't such a bonus right now. She would welcome a shift just to have something to do. That, and she's not sure how far she and Dipper can push it before Stan calls their parents. Probably pretty far—Stan is no snitch. But this is uncharted territory.

"I just want everything to go back to normal," she tells the ceiling.

"I didn't think I had to tell you this, but nothing is normal around here, including you," Pacifica says.

Mabel sits up at the sound of her friend's voice. Pacifica is standing in the entryway, silhouetted against the light coming in through the window in the door.

"Meh, I'm too interesting to be normal," Mabel says as she stands. She notices that Pacifica is carrying a bag in one hand. "What's in the bag?"

"Wendy's Gamestation. That contest at the arcade is today, remember?"

"That's today?" Mabel gasps.

"Uh, yeah, it is. I just said it was."

"The day is saved!" Mabel rockets to her feet, relieved at the prospect of having something to do. "Where's Dipper? Are we leaving now?"

"Dipper went ahead to sign up. We're supposed to meet him there, but I'm wearing my nice shoes, so you're going to drive me." Pacifica raises one foot for emphasis, showcasing her designer footwear.

Now that Pacifica has made a point of it, Mabel can see the other girl is wearing nice everything. From the blue skirt brushing her knees to the pink shades perched on her nose to the shiny gloss coating her lips, Pacifica is more made up and super-expensive-looking than Mabel's seen her be in quite some time. In fact, Mabel is starting to feel unprepared and underdressed.

"Wait, I thought this was just a nerd showdown at the arcade," she says, confused.

"It's an event, isn't it? People are going to see me, and I'm going to look fabulous because I am fabulous. Now hurry up," Pacifica says impatiently.

Aware that she's been lying on the floor, Mabel makes for the attic stairs and says, "Okay, just let me brush my hair first!"

Mabel rushes to her room and changes into a sweater that doesn't have carpet fibers stuck to its back, taking a couple minutes to brush her hair to a satisfactory sheen. Hurrying back downstairs, she looks at Pacifica and gestures towards the gift shop.

"I'll borrow the cart," she says.

The gift shop is empty when she enters, save for Grunkle Stan; he's got his back to her, checking the shelf stocks near the door in anticipation of the first afternoon tour.

Given where they stand at the moment, Mabel decides to be bold. "I'm taking the cart out bye!" she blurts.

"The cart is for employees only," Stan tells her without bothering to turn around.

"I'm on sabbatical. You understand," Mabel says.

"Yeah, well, Melody already has the cart, so too bad for you."

Darn it. Mabel ducks back into the living room before Stan works up enough indignation to launch into another speech about how she and Dipper are being ungrateful.

Pacifica is not happy to be told the cart is unavailable, but there's no way around it—they're walking to town. Pacifica swaps her fancy shoes for her beaten-up sneakers and carries her good shoes under one arm as they traverse Gopher Road, the ground still damp from the recent rain.

"So is this permanent or what? Like, are we grounded the rest of the summer?" Pacifica asks.

"I guess so," Mabel says with a sigh. "Grunkle Stan's being all weird and parent-y, and I don't like it!"

"We didn't even do anything," Pacifica says hotly.

Yes, bro-bro did a no-no, and now the girls are paying for it. But so is Dipper, and Mabel knows this hurts him more than anyone. As much as she wants to get out there and hunt some Weirdness, Dipper wants it even worse.

Mabel doesn't feel like defending Dipper right now, but she also doesn't feel like blaming him some more. "Well, at least we get to go to the arcade," she says.

"Right," Pacifica says with a frown. "The arcade isn't gross, is it?"

It's at least modestly gross, as all arcades seem to be. Pacifica doesn't need to know this. "It's pretty good, they have all the best beeps and bloops," Mabel says diplomatically.

It's a warm day, and the residual moisture of the rain has turned into a humidity that is noticeable but not stifling, mostly thanks to the gentleness of the heat. The sun peeks out from behind a slow-moving layer of white clouds, winking down at the town.

Cutebiker's reign as mayor has ushered in a new era for Gravity Falls. While Befufftlefumpter had been a recluse content to leave things as they were, Mayor Tyler's administration is primarily defined by a never-ending series of beautification initiatives aimed at improving the valley's aesthetics and, in theory, enhancing its appeal to tourists. Mabel isn't sure how effective this is going to be, given the whole Weirdness Magnetism dealie and the way the valley seems to be constantly unknown to the outside world no matter how many people pass through, but she can't argue with the appeal.

A lot of the new paint and windows have to do with Grunkle Stan's somewhat reckless use of the portal (but it was for such a good cause!), which Mabel has noticed before. Things have now gone a few steps further than that, with new light poles to replace the rusted-out ones and the sidewalks recently pressure washed. There's no mistaking the rustic town for the wide streets of Portland, but it's better, it's nice. There's a sense of civic pride in the air. McGucket's donations are being put to good use.

The arcade sits right on a corner in the roughly two-block zone that counts as Gravity Falls' downtown area, its yellow sign glowing in welcome. Mabel isn't sure how the place has survived this long (or the laser tag, for that matter), especially with such limited clientele. Then again, the valley is at least a couple decades behind the rest of the world in most ways. And Gravity Falls is, after all, the heart of Roadkill County. If you live in the county and want to go to an arcade, theater, pool, or mall—or anything, really—the valley is your first and last stop.

Still… Mabel makes a mental note to bring it up with Dipper or Grunkle Ford. Maybe the town's stasis has something to do with the bubble it exists in. Maybe there's some science going on!

The girls push through the flyer-plastered door and step into the dim arcade. Pacifica's nose instantly wrinkles, which Mabel gets. Nothing smells quite like an arcade: musty carpet, warm computers, and stale popcorn overlaid with the greasy aroma of the pizza at the snack bar. Hoo-Ha Owl's smells exactly the same. Lights and sound bombard from every direction: deep bass rumbling through the floor, eight-bit beeps, roars and howls and fuzzy gunfire. A blacklight bar buzzes loudly overhead and a change machine jingles somewhere in the strobing labyrinth.

Pacifica has taken a step back towards the door. "People come here for fun?" she says incredulously.

"Sure, there's lots of fun here. The floors are sticky with fun!" Mabel says. When this fails to motivate Pacifica, Mabel grabs her hand and pulls her towards the side room. "Let's find Dipper, then I'll show you what's up."

There's a long room with tables to one side of the arcade floor, usually where birthday parties take place. It's filled with televisions and Gamestations, a rat's nest of wires covering the tabletops like a thick, rubbery mesh. There's a lot of games going on simultaneously, but the center of attention is at the far end of the room, where two decent sized flatscreens sit on some repurposed crates. A couple rickety chairs and well-worn controllers will be the tools of the competitors. Mabel spots Dipper's hat in the crowd; he's standing to one side, mixed in with some of Wendy's friends as they watch pre-tournament play.

"Dipper!" Mabel yells, waving to get his attention.

He extricates himself from the group and threads his way through the mess over to them. "You made it," he says. He raises his hands slightly towards Pacifica, like he's about to go in for a hug, but shoves them into his vest pockets instead. "We don't start for another half hour."

Mabel's keen romantic senses detect that things are still off between Dipper and Pacifica. No doubt Pacifica remains kind of steamed over the whole Dipper-almost-died-in-a-maze-without-telling-anyone thing. Which is fair. Mabel isn't sure if she's entirely forgiven him yet, but she's over it enough to be normal with her bro.

If only there was an activity the two of them could do which would bring them together. Like, a two-player activity, perhaps with some sort of game…

Mabel reaches into the hidden pocket of her sweater and finds her change purse, extracting two quarters by feel. She pulls them out and gasps loudly. "Hey, look, two quarters! Dipper, why don't you show me that punching game again?"

"Fight Fighters? Uh, yeah, okay," Dipper says.

They make it about halfway across the arcade when Mabel whirls around, presses one quarter into Dipper's hand, shoves the other at a startled Pacifica, and rapidly backs away. "Holy MOLY, I need to pee! Hit me all of a sudden, probably gotta go for a long time—don't wait up, play without me!"

She zips away around the nearby corner of the line of cabinets. But instead of going to the bathroom, she moves back up the line and peers through the narrow gap between two games.

Dipper and Pacifica are still standing in the same place, dumbfounded by Mabel's speedy departure. Mabel chuckles to herself from her hidden vantage. It's the perfect setup! And they don't suspect a thing…

"So she's trying to get us to make up, right?" Dipper says.

"Obviously," Pacifica replies.

"Is it working?" Dipper asks optimistically.

Pacifica crosses her arms. "What if I'm still mad?"

Dipper sighs and slouches. "Then… that's fair."

Dipper is staring at the floor, but Mabel watches as Pacifica's expression softens. "What's this game about?" she asks.

Dipper looks up. "What?"

"This punching game. Aren't you going to show me?"

Dipper's answering smile is hopeful. "Yeah, it's in the back."

Mabel leans back, a smug smile on her face as she dramatically mimes dusting her hands off. She's a romance genius, and her plan worked perfectly—which is good, because she actually does have to pee.

When she gets back from the bathroom, Dipper and Pacifica are still at the Fight Fighters machine. Dipper is explaining the different combos to Pacifica while she liberally anoints her side of the cabinet with hand sanitizer. Mabel snaps a picture of them for the scrapbook and then glances down at the side of the cabinet, towards the spot where Dipper said he found the code that unleashed Rumble McSkirmish. She sees a shiny patch of scratched metal where the code has been buffed out.

This should be a relief, given the damage Rumble did to the town (and to Dipper). Instead, Mabel is surprised by the feeling of disappointment that briefly wells in her. Why should she care? It's better that the code isn't there to cause trouble again. She can't blame whoever erased it for not wanting more videogame characters smashing up the place. She realizes that she's sad a little bit of weirdness is gone—not because she wants to experience this particular thing, but because she's banned from experiencing anything like it.

Hey… If the videogames came to life or something, wouldn't that make Grunkle Stan see how dumb he's being? Weirdness is everywhere, they don't have to look for it! Maybe the Mystery Trio could save the day again and prove they can handle whatever Gravity Falls has in store for them. Yeah, Dipper and Grunkle Ford got messed up in a bad maze, but that was clearly supposed to be a full-team adventure, not a paltry two-person job. And maybe Dipper wouldn't have been hurt hunting that giant rat if Wendy had been there, or Candy and Grenda—or all of them! The next time a Windigo shows up, Grunkle Stan is gonna be sorry if he doesn't have the whole team.

Her thoughts are interrupted when Wendy gets their attention. "Yo, it's tournament time!" she yells from the more populated section of the arcade. "Pacifica, you're up!"

Pacifica's eyebrows draw together in confusion. "What?"

Dipper hunches his shoulders sheepishly. "Did I not mention that I signed you up for the tournament?"

"No, you didn't," Pacifica says with narrowing eyes.

"Look, you're totally ready," Dipper says quickly. "I wouldn't have signed you up if I didn't think you could win."

This appeal to Pacifica's ego does the trick. "Well… alright. But I'd better get my own controller, I don't want those nerds sweating on it."

"Maybe keep that sanitizer handy."

Mabel has fun enough with Medal of Duty now and then, but she doesn't have the patience or inclination for a tournament. She's happy to watch from the sidelines, eat a soft pretzel, and duck out when Dipper or Pacifica aren't active for a quick round of Mrs. Puck-Man, played on a faded wooden cabinet with a sticky joystick and a blurry, fingerprint-covered monitor—the way nature intended!

The tournament isn't without its highlights, of course. Sometimes the trash talk can be pretty entertaining, especially when Wendy is up.

"Come on, Wendy, quit camping!" Thompson complains as he takes yet another digital bullet to the dome.

Wendy just rolls with it. "Heck yeah, I'm going camping. I'm grillin' wieners, man, I got the tent set up, I got the fire going—you want mustard, relish, maybe some cheese to pair with that whine?"

Thompson, thoroughly demoralized by the verbal onslaught, is quickly defeated.

Throughout it all, Mabel finds herself fixated on the idea that something Weird is going to happen; or, maybe just the thought that something Weird could happen—should happen—and it's happened here before, so why not again? So many innocuous outings have turned into adventures, and now she's anticipating it, she wants it to happen. She stands open-armed before the universe, ready to accept whatever strangeness it bestows.

The list of competitors grows shorter. Mabel finishes her pretzel and moves on to slightly stale nachos.

Dipper is locked in a faux-life or death struggle with a kid who looks vaguely familiar—Mabel feels like she's seen her before, maybe at one of the Shack parties. Mabel realizes that if Dipper wins, he'll be up against Pacifica next. Now that will be fun, if possibly harmful to their reconciliation.

Sure enough, Dipper takes the game. There's a short break and then the next round begins. Dipper sits down on one of the creaky chairs, giving Pacifica a nod that's probably meant to convey sportsmanship but mostly conveys how awkward he's feeling. Pacifica's expression is one of icy competence; it's clear she won't be going easy on her boyfriend. Before the match begins, she leans over and whispers something in Dipper's ear; he turns bright red and nearly drops his controller, staring back at her gape-mouthed. Mabel has no idea what Pacifica said, but it looks like she's successfully thrown him off his game.

Dipper manages to regain his composure in the opening moments of the match, and Pacifica's early lead soon turns into a close game. Mabel's played with them enough times to recognize the usual patterns: Dipper is methodical, seeking out positions of superiority and locking them down. Pacifica moves quick and reacts even quicker, counting on sheer speed to gain the upper hand. Typically, Dipper's experience wins out—but it's never a sure thing. If Mabel were a gamblin' girl, she'd put her buttons on Dipper, but she could easily lose.

The contest is made all the more uncertain by the map: mod_ardennes. The forest provides little in the way of long firing lanes and makes ambush and surprise encounters easy. Mabel knows this because Dipper's said it, like, a hundred times. He really likes to learn the maps.

What ensues is less a game of cat and mouse and more a game of cat and cat where who is being chased changes from moment to moment. Dipper's always been good at videogames, and Pacifica's skills are all the more impressive given how short a time she's been playing. She's got a natural ability for games, or at least this kind of game (she never had done that well at racing).

The match runs right up to the time limit with no clear winner. With only seconds left, the next person to score will be the victor, there won't be time for the other player to respawn and score again. Dipper and Pacifica both head into the center of the map, featuring a clearing and a small system of trenches. They trade shots across the open space; Dipper lands a hit, but it's not lethal. Pacifica jumps down into the trench and Dipper does the same on his side before she can pop up and take advantage of her cover. The trench circles a bunker in the center, and they orbit it like frantic little moons, shooting through the bunker doors, throwing grenades blindly across the middle. The timer hits thirty seconds. Then ten.

Dipper takes a chance. He climbs out of his side of the trench and sprints across the top of the bunker, invading Pacifica's territory. He swings right, and by pure chance at the exact same moment, Pacifica backs up around the nearby corner, her sights still trained towards Dipper's old position. He's got her dead to rights.

Then, he hesitates.

It's only for half a second, but it's enough. Pacifica swings around and sees him and even though he starts shooting almost right away, she's already opened fire. His burst hits her but it's too late—his character ragdolls as Pacifica's screen pulses red. It's over.

Most of the room is less invested in this outcome than Mabel is; as she whoops and cheers, a round of polite applause is sustained for a few seconds. Wendy, however, is on the same page as Mabel: she's beside herself.

"Dude, what was that?!" she says to Dipper, spreading her arms in disbelief. "You choked!"

Dipper's expression is carefully blank, and Mabel knows he's fighting back disappointment. He sets his controller down and stands up, holding one hand out to Pacifica. "Good game, Pacifica."

She stands and takes his hand, but when he tries to pull away, she doesn't let go. "You wondered if I was serious, didn't you," she says with a smug smile.

"No!" he says immediately, his cheeks flushed. "I just… I choked. No reason."

Wendy gives him an exasperated punch on the shoulder as he leaves the competitor area. "You had that."

Dipper sighs. "Apparently not."

"She got into your head," Wendy says sagely. "Right before, what did she say?"

Dipper's cheeks are still flushed, and he won't meet Wendy's eyes. "I don't remember. Don't worry about it."

"Uh huh," Wendy says with her eyes narrowed in disbelief.

"Who— who's up next?" Dipper stammers, desperately changing the subject.

"That would be Tad Strange," a level voice says.

Mabel turns in surprise to see Tad Strange, wearing his neatly pressed clothes and his neatly polite expression. "Tad Strange?!" she says. "How did I not see you before?"

"I'm just not that remarkable," Tad says cheerfully. "Now, if you'll excuse me, Tad Strange is here to defend his title!"

The next match isn't very entertaining. Pacifica is darn good for a newcomer but Tad Strange is a pro, and he only dies a few times on the way to winning the match with points to spare, knocking Pacifica out of the bracket. She shakes Tad's hand stiffly, saying nothing, and walks quickly away with anger and frustration stamped on her features.

Dipper appears relieved. "She actually shook his hand," he says, surprised.

"That's not too bad, right? That's progress!" Mabel says. Then she sees Pacifica storm out of the arcade and adds, "Oh, I guess we're leaving."

"We can't bail, Wendy and Nate are still in it," Dipper points out. "I'll go talk to her."

Mabel puts a hand on his chest, stopping him. "If I was cheese, what kind would I be?"

Dipper blinks. "Uh… cheesecake? Cream cheese?"

"Swiss cheese, 'cause I'm neutral! Better let someone who didn't just shoot her a bunch of times smooth things over," Mabel tells him.

Dipper frowns at her. "Since when are you familiar with Swiss diplomacy—"

"Be right back!"

Outside, Mabel finds Pacifica not too far from the door, loitering near the quarter-machine rocket ship. The wind has picked up in the time they were indoors, taking the edge off the humidity. Pacifica is scowling at nothing in particular, her arms crossed in displeasure.

"Did you see how he kept sniping me?" she says in outrage as Mabel approaches. "What a total load!"

Geez. Mabel can practically taste the salt. "Yeah, he definitely shouldn't have won," she says loyally.

"I'll get him next time, you wait," Pacifica asserts. "Let's just go."

"So, about that…" Mabel says. "Wendy is still playing. Maybe you could use some of that sportsmanship and… go back inside?"

"I'm supposed to win, Mabel! I always win!" Pacifica says vehemently. However, the wince that crosses Mabel's face seems to register with her only a second after, and she subsides. "Well, I used to," she mutters uncomfortably.

Mabel decides it's safe to pat Pacifica on the shoulder. "Come on, you still did great, and you'll do even better next time! Besides, you beat Dipper, didn't you?"

While this does not perk Pacifica up quite as much as Mabel had hoped, it does dim some of the fire in the blonde girl's eyes. "Yeah, I did."

"What did you say to him? You totally psyched him out!"

Pacifica's lips purse into a smug, glossy smirk. "Oh, nothing. I just said if he let me win, I'd let him put his hands… somewhere."

Mabel's jaw drops in pure delight. "You're evil!"

Pacifica just shrugs. "Whatever it takes to win, hon."

"Ha ha ha! He totally believed you!" Mabel stops in the middle of another laugh, her eyes widening. "Wait, did you mean it? Wait—did he actually let you win?!"

"He tried to kill me, his precious girlfriend, so I guess he'll never know if I was serious or not," Pacifica says with a nonchalant flip of her hair.

Dipper is probably going to regret both losses, but Mabel knows he'd regret throwing the game even more. The whole thing was just a no-win for the boy-twin.

"Come on, let's go cheer for Wendy and eat pizza," Mabel says, gesturing to the door.

Pacifica seems willing to follow now. "Is the pizza here good?"

"It's definitely pizza," Mabel says as she ushers Pacifica inside.

The rest of the games fly by in a blur of pixelated mayhem and greasy food. Tad Strange wins the tournament, which is business as usual judging by everyone's reactions; apparently, Tad and that Free Pizza guy tend to go back and forth with the championship. It's a long-standing rivalry, and Mabel is slightly annoyed that Wendy and Soos never shared that particular tidbit of hot goss.

With the tournament over, most of the crowd shuffles out into the windy late afternoon. Mabel gets past the throng and stops at the street corner. The disappointment she felt earlier comes back full force when she realizes this really is it. They're leaving, and nothing weird is going to happen. It was just a regular tournament at a regular arcade where videogames come to life sometimes, but not when Mabel needs them to.

She kicks one heel on the curb, watching the arcade-goers disperse down the streets and alleys. Her sigh is swallowed by the wind as a gust bellows down the street, sweeping stray leaves across the sidewalk with a dry rattle. Past the edge of the town, the evergreens undulate in time with the sky's exhalation, their branches flailing as if in protest.

Dipper comes up beside her, checking the time on his phone. "You okay?" he asks.

"Yeah, I'm okay," Mabel says. "I just thought… you know, something cool might happen. Like we'd play a real-life videogame or go into a videogame or, I don't know…" She sighs again. "I don't know."

"It'll happen," Dipper says confidently.

Mabel is surprised by his surety. "You think?"

"We can't avoid Weirdness because we're Weird. I forgot about it when Stan was on my case, but he can't ground us from our personal Weirdness Magnetism." Dipper shakes his head. "Things are going to happen to us, or at least around us—it's just a matter of time."

"Hah! That's right! I knew Grunkle Stan was wrong," Mabel says. "I mean, I know he's just trying to protect us, but nuts to that!"

"That can't be cured, right? Like, Stan can't make us de-magnetized?" Pacifica asks.

"There's no way. We don't even understand what causes it yet, or what Weirdness really is," Dipper explains.

Pacifica's expression is conflicted; she doesn't seem to know how to feel about that.

Mabel knows how she feels about it. She takes a deep breath as the wind rumbles in her ears; the clouds march above the valley in uneven lines, their shadows scrolling along the streets and buildings. There will be amazing, crazy, and sometimes scary things in the future, because that's how it is now that she's a part of Gravity Falls.

And she wouldn't have it any other way.


Waiting for the Next Dilemma by Knuckleduster (Not On Label, 2000)


Author's Note

This chapter was supposed to be out a solid month ago. Writer's block compounded by getting suddenly busy. I am behind, but I'm still here.

I've been reading through my recent reviews and remain encouraged by the new readers. Many of them have commented that this story feels like a natural extension of the show, or like a novel adaptation of it. I find this interesting, and not just because that's the intent behind the work, but because this story is designed to bring about those feelings by intentionally ignoring or bending select elements of canon.

I realize that seems strange. Let me explain:

Gravity Falls is a sitcom, and while it is a heavily serialized sitcom, it still adheres to a status quo. Even major upsets, like Gideon taking the Shack or Ford's arrival, only upend the status quo selectively, and for limited periods of time. The status quo is only broken in total at the very end. There is no next season, so there's no need to find a way to get Mabel and Dipper back to the Shack for more summer adventures.

Returning to the valley for another summer means taking on the expectations of the reader, expectations which were set during seasons one and two. These expectations are not just carried over from the viewing experience but are also metatextual. The reader expects a return to a summer that feels like the summer already experienced; even beyond that, the reader expects certain elements to be shifted back towards the status quo because that is what the reader has experienced across many other intellectual properties.

In other words, this story is a soft reboot because a soft reboot meets reader expectations both created by the show and by a lifetime of watching other shows. Many sitcoms will soft reboot between seasons, selectively ignoring events from the previous season or explaining their absence perfunctorily (in live actions sitcoms, these soft reboots often have budgetary reasons). A key example of this in the story is Stan's return to the Shack and resumption of ownership, returning both he and Soos to their usual roles. However, Soos' time running the Shack and his new place within its hierarchy are not ignored, merely altered to resemble how things were in the previous seasons.

This is the secret sauce, the element that meets unconscious expectations. Paradoxically, this story becomes a more believable continuation of the series by changing or reversing aspects of it. We rejoin the characters in a status quo that has slightly shifted, but is fundamentally familiar. And once the status quo has been reestablished, it can be broken again.